Public Art in a Fluid Space

[Leslie Pritchett was the first Executive Director of the Black Rock Arts Foundation. She now runs Leslie Pritchett Public Art Consulting, is a board member at The Crucible, and spearheads the Tiny House Project. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

If you think about it, Burning Man itself is a temporary work of public art designed by and for its participants. The ways in which Burning Man invites, inspires and fosters organic generation of participatory artwork is fascinating on many levels, and warrants comparison with how temporary public art projects come to life in other places … most specifically, San Francisco.

Parking Meter, 2002
Parking Meter, 2002

Public art at Burning Man follows a pattern commonly referred to as “self similarity”, which is to say it exhibits similar properties when viewed from both macro and micro perspectives. At a larger scale, the annual creation of the cityscape has a shape as a collective creative effort. As we take a closer look, zooming in through the layers of massive collaborative art endeavors until we arrive at a tiny, ephemeral work generated by someone on a whim on Tuesday afternoon, we see that each of these works requires a complex social consensus to bring it to fruition.

That consensus is that it is wholly worthwhile to serve and be served by our collective creative spirits. No one is trying to meet the unique needs of individual participants. No one is trying to create a piece that will change the shape of the public space it occupies for generations. No one is trying to create a permanent mark on the landscape. No one is trying to please everyone. Therefore, everyone accepts what they encounter as an ephemeral gift to be enjoyed, shared, digested or simply ignored. This particular kind of freedom for both artists and participants creates a wellspring of shared enthusiasm that has its own internal logic, and creates beautiful patterns.

Michael Christian's "Flock" at San Francisco City Hall (Photo by Scott Beale, Laughing Squid)
Michael Christian’s “Flock” at San Francisco City Hall (Photo by Scott Beale)

By contrast, in order for a work of art to be exhibited in San Francisco, even temporarily, it must be deemed to meet the needs of many different constituent groups. Public art projects are subject to public review and parochial opinion. At least one commission will have to like it. It will be weighed, measured, evaluated and questioned. It will have to squeeze through a narrow opening. An impressive amount of paperwork will have to be generated and signed, including provisions that say, for instance, “‘Sex’ shall mean the character of being male or female” and “liquidated damages of up to $5,000 can be assessed for each entry-level job improperly withheld from the (public art project) hiring process” and that the public art project agrees to abide by the “MacBride Principles” pertaining to the hopeful resolution of employment inequities in Northern Ireland.

Bryan Tedrick's "Portal of Evolution", 2009
Bryan Tedrick’s “Portal of Evolution”, 2009

The freedom afforded at Burning Man to express oneself openly, fully and completely, illustrates the collective creativity possible when the social contract is rewritten to be broad, expansive and inclusive. And yet, it is an interesting exercise to see if we can transplant some of the fractal creativity that is Burning Man art onto other urban landscapes. If only a few shoots take hold, it will be interesting to see what grows.

About the author: Leslie Pritchett

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